Breath of the Spirit Reflection: The Eucharist and Unity
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July 25, 2021: the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18
A reflection by David Jackson
Much attention has been paid to the structure of John’s Gospel. A broad view of today’s passage would have us notice that in chapter four, the Samaritan woman proclaims Jesus as the Messiah. But here in chapter 6, the Galileans want to make Jesus king. Also in chapter 4, the Samaritans believe in Jesus, while in chapter 5 the leaders of the Jewish people are stubborn in their disbelief despite a miraculous cure. Jesus is misunderstood or rejected by the Galileans and the Jewish leaders, but is embraced by the despised Samaritans. Note too that Jesus reacts quite differently to these crowds. Jesus remained with the Samaritans for two days, but withdraws “again to the mountain alone.” when the followers from Galilee want to make Jesus king.
John adds several details to this account which are meant to recall the exodus story of Moses and Israel. Jesus crosses the sea, goes up on the mountain, feeds the people. (See Exodus 14:21, 19:20, 16:31, respectively.) John also emphasizes Jesus’ divine knowledge and powers. Here, Jesus sees the crowd coming, but in the synoptic version of this story, the apostles inform Jesus that the people are hungry (See Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; and Luke 9:12-17).
As usual in John, Jesus takes the initiative. In fact, John suggests that Jesus has supernatural knowledge, knowing beforehand the miracle about to occur, AND does all the work, “Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.” Jesus does not ask for help from the disciples until it comes time to “gather the fragments.” John has also been careful to mention that the loaves are barley loaves. This echoes of the story of Elisha, a Jewish prophet, that we heard in today’s first reading. Many of Jesus’ listeners would have been very familiar with this story. Elisha provides food for 100 people with only 20 barley loaves and there were leftovers! Jesus feeds more than 5000 with five loaves and two fish and twelve basketfuls are left. Jesus out does one of the great miracles from the Jewish prophets – no wonder hungry people want to make Jesus their ruler! But Jesus escapes to the hills alone when the people show their misunderstanding of what just happened. In fact, it is worth noticing that John moves the placement of the number who are fed to earlier in the passage (than Matthew, Mark and Luke); thus, the climax of the story is not the miracle, but its misunderstanding by the people those who witnessed it!
Despite John’s emphasis on Jesus’ divine power, it would be a mistake not to notice the very human side of Jesus. John notes that Jesus was the first to think of the hunger of that people who were listening. These people need to eat; something must be done. This was the kind of person Jesus was, always concerned for people’s real-life needs. Recall also that after raising Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5: 21-24, 35-43), Jesus said "she should be given something to eat."
What picture do we have of Jesus’ disciples? First of all, we notice that at the beginning of the reading Jesus is gathered with the disciples on the mountain. At the end, Jesus will be alone on the mountain. Jesus was continually trying to teach them that they must focus on God’s love for them and not be overly concerned with the ups and downs of a given day. John’s gospel tells us, “A large crowd followed [Jesus], because they saw the signs [Jesus] was performing on the sick.” It clearly bothered Jesus when people were only attracted to the extraordinary and miraculous. Jesus wanted them to see beyond these things to the love that made them possible. In our day too, we can be attracted to the extraordinary and miraculous to the detriment of following Jesus’ teachings about loving our neighbors!
Jesus tests Philip in this regard. Will Philip trust God’s goodness or be overly focused on the difficult logistics? Philip had been busy calculating the cost and replies that “two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” Phillip is thinking in terms of cost and earthly resources, not through the lens of God’s abundant love. How different if he had responded, “I’m sure, with God’s help, we can provide these people with something.” Andrew does not do so well either. He does manage to find a boy with five barley loaves and two fish, but adds, “...what good are these for so many?” I suspect if we were to be tested for our trust in God’s abundance versus our focus on the logistics, we might also come up a bit short!
Jesus could have berated them for lack of faith, but doesn’t. Jesus simply proceeds to multiply the loaves and fish. Over 5000 people are fed and there is such abundance that 12 baskets of leftovers are collected. Jesus always seems to focus on what matters most – the presence and power of God’s love – as opposed to the problems that always seems to persist.
Jesus’ followers should get the message. (As should we!) God can do much with little. This theme is repeated over and over again in the Bible. Ruth was gathering grain left over from the harvest and becomes an ancestor of Jesus. Matthew was a tax gatherer and rejected by so many and becomes an apostle. The people going fishing become fishers of people. But here again the disciples do not get the message. Apparently, they share the crowd’s interest in making Jesus their ruler – one more example of thinking in earthly terms as opposed to trusting the Divine plan.
It was a long process for the apostles to move from looking to Jesus as a ruler on earth to preaching the Reign of God in Jesus. We must make the same long journey. This Gospel passage is another example of the apostles living out of objections, hesitancy, and doubt. It is so often our story as well. We all probably know, and at times are, people who live from objection, hesitancy, and doubt. Many of us have been wounded by treatment from the Church: those who have gone through divorce, those who have had an abortion, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and the list could go on and on. Recent years present us with many examples of people (Catholics among them) supporting demagogues to promise earthly riches – for the privileged few. The Reign of God that Jesus preaches is in stark contrast. Jesus’ Reign includes as opposed to excludes. Note that Jesus feeds even those who follow along just to see the spectacular! Our present church and politics show significant division. Where am I in that? As a follower of Jesus, does my believing include beyond human division and disagreement? Am I looking for earthly prosperity, even at the cost to others, or Love’s inclusive Reign?
As a Catholic priest for 48 years, David Jackson preached on most Sundays. Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark's Story by Ched Myers has been his go to for Cycle B, Mark. His love of Scripture led him to pursue an M.A. from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. For the past 16 years, he has sent out homily reflections to friends. For the last two years these reflections have also been available on Roman Catholic Women Priests Canada's bimonthly newsletter. Since he discovered Catholic Women Preach, that web site is part of his weekly preparation. At 82 years of age, he has been married for the last ten years to the love of his life, Alva. In March he published his first book, Jesus Gardens Me, available on Amazon. Get Breath of the Spirit scripture reflections in your inbox every week.